Shoot for the screen, you cyber-fans

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Remember Bob and Terry, the Likely Lads, and the old times when it was perfectly possible to go all day without being told a football score until Match of the Day began? Not any more, not now sports-overload has kicked in.

Remember Bob and Terry, the Likely Lads, and the old times when it was perfectly possible to go all day without being told a football score until Match of the Day began? Not any more, not now sports-overload has kicked in.

With end-to-end soccer from Sky, Eurosport, and Radio Five, and with all five terrestrial channels showing some kind of football at some time, plus coverage on Teletext and mobile phones, everyone knows all the scores long before Gary Lineker comes on screen.

And futurologists and industry analysts tell us more changes are in the pipeline that could further revolutionise the watching of a multi-million-pound industry, with Manchester United alone nudging £1bn.

In five years, you can be on a train watching a soccer match live on a laptop through a third-generation mobile phone connection. The game will be interactive, allowing slow-motion replays at the touch of a key, and camera angle changes on demand. And the pictures may not be provided by traditional media companies, but by the clubs themselves.

Just as Saturday sporting papers like the Pink 'Un and the Green 'Un, never recovered from the arrival of television, so traditional TV coverage, terrestrial or satellite, is facing a challenge over its monopoly on providing football images. All those changes become possible and likely as the much-vaunted broadband technology kicks in over the next two years.

Broadband, as opposed to narrow band, essentially means data speed transmission is much faster. As everyone knows, most domestic internet connections are painfully slow because most are via phone lines designed for voice transmissions. To reduce background noise, these lines are filtered and that reduces the amount of data that can be sent.

BT's futurologist, Ian Pearson, says: "Broadband is about speed. An ordinary phone line has a filter which limits the speed to 3.5khz to reduce background noise. That means you can't get much data down it. An ISDN line increases the speed to 128 kHz a second.''

But even that is not fast enough for transmitting the live images of a football match. For that, broadband speeds of around 2MHz are required, and equipment to do just that is about to become available.

"Events like live football matches become feasible with 1 to 2MHz, and we will be rolling that sort of equipment out to business towards the end of the year," says Mr Pearson. "We expect it will become more widely available to the public next year.'' And existing agreements aside, that makes football coverage a whole new ball game. It then becomes feasible for clubs, especially the big ones, to take their games, their products, direct to the consumer, with no middleman.

Football clubs have embraced the internet. Twelve months ago, Manchester United announced its intention to become the first to offer free internet access to an international audience. The club said the launch of manufree.net would mean millions of fans will be able to connect to the Web from more than a dozen countries.

At present, most sites like that provide information and pictures about the clubs, players, fixtures, letters from managers, and details about what is on sale in the club shop. But when broadband comes on line, the content possibilities increase exponentially, and for the first time the traditional TV coverage will have a rival.

No longer will traditional content providers be an essential link between club and viewer. The phone line will become the third way of getting moving pictures in the house, alongside the aerial and the satellite dish.

Suppliers of traditional TV images, Sky, Granada and NTL are also involved in new media, into broadband, and have bought into some of the major clubs too. But futurologists say the clubs, eventually, will be the dominant providers.

Just as internet service providers are moving from being specialised IT companies to more consumer-based operations, so football clubs will broadcast their own pictures. Some clubs are already associated with computer and internet companies. Elonex has sponsored Wimbledon FC and Southend, Viglen has been the main sponsor of Charlton Athletic, and Hewlett-Packard is tied into Tottenham Hotspur. Microsoft, Digital and Canon were all major names behind the Euro '96 tournament in England in the summer.

Just as clubs are setting exploiting the internet, so too are the traditional TV providers. Eurosport, for example, says fans can keep up to date through eurosport.com. "Eurosport.com lets you live the experience," goes the blurb. "Interactive videos enable you to watch your favourite sporting moment and be part of the action. Listen to it live, or read minute-by-minute coverage bringing major events right to your computer.''

Back at BT, Mr Pearson says the internet is everything. "The boundaries are dropping between the internet and TV," he says. "Eventually, TV and the internet will become the same thing. Material could be downloaded from the computer and transferred across to the TV.

"At home people tend to access most of their information through the TV because they may not have a PC or because they may not have the internet on all the time. At home, if you are looking for news you tend to go to the TV, but if you are in the office with no TV, you tend to go to a website.

"At present, the internet is slow, and it can take forever to get to a webpage," says Mr Pearson. "But with broadband it will be much faster, more user-friendly, and it means, in time, football clubs will sell it directly to the fan, so they will not have to go through companies who take a big cut for distribution. It is entirely feasible.''

The new technology will allow clubs to market directly, and encourage innovation. New, ultra-fast mobile phones, for example, will be capable of downloading data and images at broadband speeds too.

"In two years, if you are in a train you will be able to have a mobile phone that will give you an acceptable video quality for a small screen," adds Mr Pearson. "That means you will be able to sit and watch a live TV match through your new phone.''

For soccer fans, it will mean they will be able to watch their team, anytime, anywhere. The only hope for everyone else is that train companies come up with special carriages in which the new cyber supporters, and their phones, can be contained.

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